Today marks the anniversary of what is considered the most important day in music history: the date that a teenager named John Lennon met a teenager named Paul McCartney in a place called Liverpool. Millions upon millions would become awestruck by what started on this day.
There’s book written by Jim O’ Donnell, “The day John met Paul” which is a recount of that prophetic day, it opens before sunrise of that simmering summer Saturday in northwest England, and then closes before midnight. In between, the reader walks the cobblestones of late 1950’s Liverpool, bearing witness to the little events that build up to the ineluctable intersection of the two teens. That is to say, you see John and Paul come together. It was a day that would change a music that would change a world.
Are you ready to relive that day?
“To most kids, the music is a wow; to Lennon, it is a vow—some- thing to believe in, commit to, live out. He hears a feeling—a world—in rock music, and he is determined to step into it and live it. He has seen his childhood and his childhood dreams disappear. Now, as his adolescence nears its end, rock and roll is his last dream of youth. He clings to the dream. He’s not ready, just yet, to take his place in the rear row of obscurity. The whole point of his life is reduced to this: be a rocker, or be a docker. And he’s ready to run hard and fast and scorch his lungs to make it. At the very least, the music will help him to take wing and circle the nest; at the most, it will let him live his dreams. In Elvis, the Liverpool teenager senses the blueprint of his life. He knows he wants to become Elvis. What he doesn’t know is that he wants to become Elvis in order to become himself. He will find himself through the Elvis ego.
In March 1957, he forms a band. It’s called the Black Jacks for one week and then rechristened the Quarry Men Skiffle Group. The band starts out playing predominantly the skiffle songs of Lonnie Donegan. It’s actually less a band than a gathering of happy, healthy, free-floating schoolboys looking forward to summer vacation. From its founding in March, Lennon has master minded the skiffle group, turning it gradually toward rock and roll. Printed at the top of the Quarry Men business card is this self- depiction: “Country • Western • Rock’n’Roll • Skiffle.” But the bandleader’s ambition is rock ruled. The group plays anywhere it can, parties, dances, competitions. It comes by today’s St. Peter’s Church fete engagement through the mother of Pete Shotton. He’s one of the Quarry Men and Lennon’s fair-haired best friend.
It’s 11:31 when the tart teen cuts his cross aunt off with a good- bye wave of his hand and says he’s going out. His breathing is deep and fast. Yet he still feels slept in. He asks his aunt if she’s going to the St. Peter’s fete today. She says she is. He nods and walks through the front hallway toward the door. He has his guitar in his hand. He’s unmindful of the wooden grandfather clock in the hallway. The tousle-haired teenager thinks about the show. Music suddenly fills his mind and body. He looks up and down Menlove Avenue. He knows that, when it comes to playing rock and roll, he’s the toughest kid on the block. What he doesn’t know is that he’s about to meet his match.
Lennon leaves for his appointment with fate.
IT’S TEN PAST noon. The sun doesn’t linger. It slips behind some clouds and pauses. The sporadic clouds contrast with Woolton’s honey-golden mood today. Preparations for the St. Peter’s Church Garden Fete press toward joyful last-minute confusion. The procession through town is slated to start at 2 P.M. The St. Peter’s fete is one of several garden parties in Woolton from mid-June through early July. Since the church is the center of the community, the fete is scheduled each year for the Saturday nearest June 29, the feast of St. Peter.
The event is run for the church and by the church. The purpose of the day is to bring the community together while helping St. Peter’s financially. A small independent committee began organizing months before. It’s like preparing for a wedding. Actual arrangements for the fete get underway in January with the booking of entertainment and the ordering of tents for the fair- grounds. In March, local students began rehearsals for lining up and marching and the like. About the same time, parents started getting dresses and costumes ready.
By 12:30 P.M., a carnival mood rides the noonday air. The village’s emotional thermostat is rising with the weather’s. Dozens of people on the church field wear faces creased with all styles of smiles. It’s more like a big family gathering than a fair. The Woolton community becomes a unit on this day each year. Close neighbours become even closer. Although there is precious little time to go with the procession on tap at 2 P.M. people move at a leisurely pace.
HALF OF THE day’s real news in music—although no one will know it for a spell—is a long way off in a backyard in England.
Fifteen- year-old Paul McCartney sits in a striped-folding-chair world of his own this afternoon, as he strums an orange-red cello guitar. His exterior world is a little backyard, or back garden, bound by hedges and a wooden stick fence; it’s the kind of yard you could fall asleep in with a book over your face. His interior world is the sound of the guitar. At this moment, he works on the guitar with the same fervor he would work on a Boy Scout merit badge later in the summer. He can’t be bothered with anybody while he’s practicing. When he’s concentrating on his playing, he wouldn’t answer the front door if Queen Elizabeth were knocking on it. This afternoon the teenager’s neck is wet with sweat. As he strums away the time, it crosses his mind that he’s going to a garden party in Woolton today and will meet up with Ivan Vaughan there.
Vaughan is a classmate of McCartney’s at the Liverpool Institute and was born on the exact same day as McCartney in June of ’42. A bookish but impish young man, he is a neighbour and friend of John Lennon. Every now and again, he plays a tea chest bass in Lennon’s group, the Quarry Men. Painted on the bass are the words, “Jive with Ive, the ace on the bass.” Vaughan knows how much McCartney likes rock and roll, so he invited him to go to the fete and meet Lennon and his band. It took no goading to get him to go.
Of the six Quarry Men on the parade lorry this afternoon, four wear white cotton shirts with collars. Only Lennon and his tea chest bassist, Len Garry, have coloured shirts. The sixteen-year-old Lennon stands on the big truck, guitar in his hands, and feels like a comical figure as the truck drives on. How can anyone appreciate his music if, by the time they hear a couple of seconds of it, he’s gone? He gets his band to play a little rock and roll; taps into his spiritual pipeline. But even that doesn’t make it worth it. On the big floating platform, his feet feel unreal, as if they’ve been shot through with novacaine. Finally, he despairs of playing. He puts his guitar down and spends the rest of his truck- guided sightseeing tour joshing with his friends.
IT’S FIVE PAST four. Teenager John Lennon gathers his bandmates into the scouts’ hut on the upper field. They get their equipment and get ready. About a mile away, in the Liverpool suburb of Allerton, teenager Paul McCartney is also getting ready. He stands in front of a bathroom mirror and combs his hair. He squeezes one more pearl of Brylcream into his right hand and runs it through his scalp. The teen sweeps the thick, dark brown hair up and back. It stands up high in front. He goes into his bedroom and drapes a long, white sports jacket across his shoulders. The jacket is a rock and roll fashion footnote to a popular song, Marty Robbins’s “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation.”
The teenage guitarist is making the most of the fact that he can wear what he wants today. Since it’s a Saturday, he can jettison his school blazer and white shirt and tie. He’s particularly proud of his black slacks. They’re about as narrow as the drainpipe that runs down the back of his Forthlin Road home. He takes a last look at his hair and picks up his guitar and heads outside.
Without forethought, McCartney straps the guitar on his back, gets on his bike and starts for the Woolton fete. He negotiates the uphill ride with enthusiasm. The teenage McCartney is large eyed as he leans over the handlebars. His head swirls with riotous summer dreams. The bicycle zips over the Liverpool streets and roads and the Allerton Municipal Golf Course, which bisects the Lennon and McCartney homes. Now and then, the bike’s chrome shoots sun arrows through the nebulous heat. In his long, white jacket, fifteen- year-old Paul gleams with youth as he crosses over Menlove Avenue. The hot afternoon makes the jacket look Arctic white. It fluffs up around him like a miniature bridal train.
The clock set in the old sandstone tower of St. Peter’s Church says 4:17. The military band squelches itself into silence and the St. Peter’s Church rector introduces the Quarry Men Skiffle Group. A young man with a guitar steps into the northern England country portrait. He has a look in his eyes: teenager John Lennon weaves toward the glistening conical microphone that snakes out of the wooden scaffold. He stands stage center and looks across the afternoon. The audience senses immediately that he has a prepossessing presence, especially for one so young. Since he won’t wear his glasses and he’s in a pint sized alcohol fog, he looks through a hazy lens at the hazy day. His weak eye-sight is filtered through a yellow gauze of beer. To him, the people look like bands of confetti pendulating across a big lawn. He says hello and introduces the band. The sound carries clearly through the two gray horn speakers. The voice gives the feeling of a summer breeze with a pungent sea-spray in it.
The band breaks into its first song. They dispense a shower of notes into the humid sticky air. It is a rusty, ringing sound.
It takes a few seconds to begin to place understanding between the fact of what is happening and the comprehension of it. After the initial shock, the first comprehension for many is that, while they don’t know what the banging is about, it sounds cheerful. Among those attempting to comprehend the sound are the singer’s birth mother, his aunt Mimi, and two other aunts of his. The two aunts and his mother are pleased and proud to see the teenager up on the stage. His aunt Mimi—his aunt-guardian-mother—is another story. When the Quarry Men hit their first note, she had been on the upper field in the big white refreshment tent. She had emerged from the tent, with several others, at the first crack of the rock and roll rumble.
The throng in front of the stage had been magnetized within seconds of the singer saying hello. It’s composed mainly of young people. They hearken to the sound. The group is loud, but not abrasive. They hammer out a variety of skiffle and rock and roll tunes such as “Cumberland Gap” and “Maggie Mae” and “Be- Bop-a-Lula.” Tiny spheroids of perspiration materialize on the Quarry Men’s foreheads. The band chugs along like a Liverpool tug in shallow waters.
IT’S 4:28 P.M. About ten minutes into the Quarry Men show, the high-spirited, high-haired teenager from Allerton, Paul McCartney, arrives on his bike at the church field. He leans the bike against a fence. The cologne of freshly baked cakes grazes his nose. There is a moderate breeze. The afternoon sky is toneless. The sun gilds the area every few minutes. The teenager wonders about the music he’s hearing. It’s definitely not standard fare for a church fair, at least no church fair that he has ever been to.
McCartney walks into the big open field. It’s 4:32 P.M. The air is toasty. The teenager hitches his thumbs in the pockets of his tight black pants. In his white jacket, he looks like one of his father’s pipe cleaners sticking halfway out of a dark tobacco pouch. The wide round face turns to Lennon and locks in: a rock and roll radar dish picking up a sig- nal. His eyes, not quite tea-saucer size, are transfixed on the stage. He stares intently. McCartney’s brown diamond eyes mirror two John Lennons skating across their ice-watery surfaces. The sleek, slender, slippery figure of sixteen-year-old John Lennon inclines his head toward the microphone and rips the local latitude and longitude with “Come Go with Me.” He has a whip- cord of a voice. This being his home field, he gives the show a little something extra. He purrs the lyric, then snarls it. The simple amplification system translates the lyric into bolts of words. In the long sculpture of his face, his mouth seems chiseled with a toenail cutter. His lips slice the words thin. The expression is half smile, half smirk.
The teenager doesn’t know all the words to the song, so he makes some of them up. No one in the Quarry Men is surprised. His bandmates never know what he’s going to do next when he picks up a guitar. He might do anything—and it will probably be fun. In his hands, the guitar is an exclamation point. Most of the audience doesn’t know he’s making up the words. Even most of the teenagers don’t know it: they hear the lyrics, but they understand the drums and guitars. Besides, the singer knows how the song feels. He’s getting that across, and that’s what matters most.
As Lennon plays, he tries to take the crowd’s pulse—tries to put his finger on what sorts of performer actions get what sorts of audience reactions. The light terra-cotta eyes window-shop across the multifarious English faces. The young guitarist offers a mixed bag of movements and gestures . . . and even expressions. In a single minute, his eyes stray from convivial to condemnatory to contemplative to convulsed—and back to convivial. Never do they look confused. He knows what he wants to be doing, and he’s doing it.
In turn, some in the audience take his measure. There is a ver- tiginous sense about the singer-guitarist of both friendship and danger; of open fields and dark alleys; of a swishing blade of mead- ow and a switchblade. All that anyone can tell for sure about the young Lennon is that he’s working up a good sweat—the war paint of the rock musician. A patch of sweat stains the back of his shirt. His onstage heart is a heavy hammer. His mouth is spitless. He swipes his lower lip with his tongue.
The teenager is having fun. He’s having a rock and roll field day on the big Liverpool field.
A small shred of grass away, both thumbs in the corners of his peg-legged pants pockets, another teenager is also having fun. Fifteen-year-old guitarist Paul McCartney listens for a rock and roll heartbeat; looks down Lennon’s throat for inflammation of the lyric. He finds the older teenager’s health to be solid as a rock. This may be a garden party, but McCartney can tell that the guitar player is not garden variety.
To start with, Lennon’s creative extemporaneousness etches itself across McCartney’s mind. He likes how Lennon makes up words on the spot—suffuses the music with a teenage Liverpool touch. In addition, without even knowing all the words, the guy still captures the triumph of each song.
Secondly, the fifteen-year-old is taken by the concrete actuality of the band—the simple fact of its existence in the real world. Here’s a cluster of local blokes—around his own age—up on a stage playing not-half-bad rock and roll.
And thirdly, McCartney realizes that, for the first time in his life, he’s looking at someone who cares about this crazy new music as much as he does. He knows that he and Lennon share a good friend—rock and roll. He can tell that they both listen to the same sounds and, more importantly, hear the same messages. And, most importantly, the music really matters to them.
It has been one thing for McCartney to hear the music on the radio or on records or to see it in the movies or on stage, or even to see local bands that fool around with it. But he can tell that this guy isn’t fooling around. This music means something to Lennon—and he means business. McCartney holds a sharp eye on this fellow who is in his own age group, in his own city, and playing his own music.
AT 6:47, LESS than five minutes after the Quarry Men have arrived at the hall, two more teenagers cross Church Road. It’s a humidity ravaged evening as occasional Quarry Man Ivan Vaughan guides his guitarist friend Paul McCartney across the street from the field. McCartney leaves his bike by the side wall and Vaughan shoves open the door. Inside is eternity. They breeze through the kitchen and into the back of the auditorium. McCartney, guitar on his back, looks guardedly toward the stage area where several of the Quarry Men are sitting around laughing. Some of the teenage musicians side-eye the guy in the bright white sports coat. Lennon glances at him cautiously.
Vaughan’s face is animated as he prepares to introduce McCartney to the band—and especially to John Lennon. It’s a tantalizing prospect to Vaughan: devil-may-care John meeting cherub cheeked Paul; the guy who has to practice on the porch meeting the guy who has a piano in the parlor; the class clown who’s had a few beers and didn’t tell his aunt he had a band meeting the dressed-to- kill kid who is going to scout camp and is encouraged to play music by his father.
As is usual with teenage guys, the “introductions” are not so much introductions as glances from a poker game on a fast train. None of them are exceedingly concerned with formal niceties. Vaughan tells the people who the guy with him is and then tells the guy with him who the people are, and that’s about as ceremonious as it gets. So when McCartney meets Lennon, they don’t shake hands—nor do they know that fate is shaking both their hands. In greeting each other, they barely move their lips. Lennon nods faintly, once, involuntarily; McCartney’s mouth makes a small smile that does not reach his eyes.
For a millisecond, they eye each other in motionless tableau— Lennon sitting, McCartney standing. Then their eyes meet squarely and, momentarily, you can practically hear the dust motes settle on Lennon’s guitar next to him on a chair. The sight each beholds is hardly astonishing: brown eyes, brown hair, aver- age height, average weight. . . . No, the astonishment would surge from something inside the two of them—something behind the eyes, under the hair, over the height, beyond the weight; something about a certain . . . attitude . . . toward a certain . . . kind . . . of music.
Vaughan and McCartney pull up chairs and join the group.
McCartney takes the guitar off his back and puts it on a folding chair. There is talk, but none between Lennon and McCartney. They keep their verbal distance from one another. They’re both casual but not conversational. There’s about as much personal interaction between them as in a chess game played by mail. The church hall clock puts away a few minutes and neither Lennon nor McCartney utters even terse syllables. It’s not as if they fumble for words: they just don’t bother talking to each other.
It is McCartney who ultimately breaks the ice when, unostentatiously, he stands and picks up his guitar from the chair next to him and starts to play it. So it is the guitar that will do the talking between them. It’s 6:52 P.M. In the wan light of the church hall, McCartney reaches for the guitar instinctively, he picks up the instrument and feels the thick, acoustic promise of its hollowness and strings. Lennon, still not unthawed, crisscrosses his arms in front of his chest. This dark-haired chap might look a bit like Elvis, thinks Lennon, but he also looks way too young to do anything serious with a guitar.
A few seconds later, Lennon is entranced as McCartney bewitches his guitar into a tuned musical instrument. Destined by his rock and roll instincts, the young Elvis semi-look-alike cuts loose on a song by Eddie Cochran called “Twenty Flight Rock.” His voice and playing and movements are extraordinarily fresh and vibrant. The beat of his music thumps against the hall’s marshy green walls. His white jacket flaps around him. The teenager puts his heart and soul and mind on rock and roll autopilot, returning the favor of Lennon’s show with a show of his own.
McCartney has Lennon’s rapt attention. Lennon has a sensation of the hall getting smaller and darker, and McCartney getting bigger and brighter. Lennon feels that touch of gentle giddiness one has on a ship at sea when another ship comes up over the horizon. On rocky Liverpool waves, Lennon and McCartney zigzag into each other’s sight.
They see each other.
For Lennon, it’s not just that the kid knows how to play the guitar. He can tell that McCartney is far more than a mechanic on the instrument. He can tell that McCartney feels for the music. He divines that these runaway rock and roll sounds travel first class in McCartney’s emotional compartment, just as they do with him. Everyone else in that church hall shoves them under a second-class seat. Like McCartney earlier today, Lennon is aware for the first time of someone making rock and roll into a Liverpool commodity. Here’s a Liverpool kid playing good rock and roll, just as he has been trying to do. It’s an ineffable realization for Lennon’s rock- racked emotions. The air becomes charged with mutual respect. Lennon rests his left ankle on his right knee. As his eyes fill with McCartney, he becomes aware that he’s looking at quite a lot of musician.
To finish up, McCartney requisitions a medley of Little Richard tunes from his well-stocked musical memory. He sings raucously, unrestrainedly, dropping salvos of strident howls on his young listeners. His voice dives deep into their ear canals. Lennon discerns tonnage in the tonsils. There’s the engine of a rock and roll rocket in there. The voice paints the church hall ceiling in teen sparkle, whereupon St. Peter’s Church Hall, Liverpool, England, becomes rock and roll’s Sistine Chapel. As he sings, McCartney oscillates rhythmically. Sweat streaks his cheeks and trickles down his neck. He looks at the wheel of faces around him. Above a jacket that is as white and shiny and speckled as a well-exercised cue ball, his glance irradiates darkly.
Lennon listens. He listens and learns. He listens and learns from a Liverpool lad. His eyes riveted on McCartney’s fingers, his chin cupped in his hands, his feet stapled to the floor, he sits in silent wonder, squinting. A young man not easily astonished, Lennon is astonished. He has a feeling of seasickness. For his money, McCartney’s performance is the teenage apotheosis of rock and roll. He contemplates the musical intelligence in the younger fellow’s fingers. He gleans the knowledge that McCartney’s fingers might know more than his do.
The kid’s auspicious exhibition makes Lennon feel the confines of his own musical knowledge. His enjoyment of the show quickly transforms into competitiveness. Age-wise, this guy is unimpressive; talentwise, he might just be too impressive. Lennon notes how the little show has shushed everyone in the room. McCartney has wrested control of the boys from him and Lennon knows it— there’s a new rooster in the church-hall barn. Nonetheless, the older teen cannot ignore the rare sense of admiration McCartney’s guitar work has induced in him. Lennon’s blood pressure and heartbeat pick up. He’s like an astronaut feeling the g-load of liftoff—this g- load being a hot load of rock guitar.
A bright yellow light creeps through the high church hall windows. It’s 6:58 P.M. when McCartney polishes off his little gem of a performance. There is the salty tang of sweat in his mouth. The show has lasted six minutes. It has been six minutes of sudden power. He stops playing and notices Lennon staring right over his shoulder. The two tongues become amiable over the guitar. McCartney’s throat is dry. But he shows Lennon how to play “Twenty Flight Rock,” displaying his knowledge like a notch on a belt. Quarry Man guitarist Eric Griffiths also assimilates the dissertation.
It’s 7:09 P.M. Elapsed time from McCartney’s entrance to exit: twenty-one minutes. Nobody would ever have believed how much pow and how much wow would one day come of those twenty-one minutes. The two teenagers hardly know each other’s names. But they are far from strangers: they have bled rock and roll into each other’s wrists.
Back at home, Lennon ponders again whether he should ask that Elvis-looking guy to join the band. Left to his own thoughts now, he knows he should ask him. That’s all there is to it. There will be no more temporizing about it.
He looks at the darkened Elvis Presley poster in his room. A bright smile begins to play across his face. The smile grows into one of Lennon’s sleepy-cat grins. He starts to silently mouth the words to Elvis’s “Hound Dog.” If Elvis is the hound dog, thinks Lennon, then he’ll be the fox in the big green English field—and give Elvis a run for his money.
The tousle-haired teenager closes his lion-brown eyes and wonders what it would be like to be rich and famous for playing rock and roll all day.
He can just Imagine.
IT WOULD BE a night of a thousand unseen stars shining on in the darkness.”
From “The day John met Paul” by Jim O’ Donnell.
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